Presidential libraries are a familiar feature of modern America. Since Herbert Hoover, presidents have been memorialized by library-museums that have preserved their papers and commemorated their achievements. Few people know that the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress is the nation's oldest and most comprehensive presidential library, for while the recently built presidential libraries each hold the papers of a single chief executive, the Manuscript Division has in its custody the papers of twenty-three presidents, including the men who founded the nation, wrote its fundamental documents, and led it through the greatest crisis of its existence.
The Manuscript Division began acquiring presidential papers soon after the Library occupied the Thomas Jefferson Building in 1897. So imposing was the new structure that it seemed to be designed especially for the papers of a president. The new building was "the natural and fitting depository" for presidential papers, declared the descendants of Francis P. Blair, who in 1903 gave the division its first presidential collection, the papers of Andrew Jackson. Shortly after the Jackson Papers arrived, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the executive order transferring to the Manuscript Division the State Department's historical archives, which included the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. In the years after Roosevelt's order, the division assiduously acquired other presidential papers, obtaining some by purchase—the papers of James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson, for example—and many more by gift—those of Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, and Calvin Coolidge, to name a few.
No gift was pursued with more patience and diligence than the papers of Abraham Lincoln. Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam first approached the president's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, about the donation of his father's papers in 1901. Continued efforts to obtain the papers bore fruit in 1919 to the relief of all interested parties, for Robert had threatened to burn his father's papers and was apparently once interrupted in the act of doing so. He closed President Lincoln's papers to all researchers until twenty-one years after his own death, a step that produced a crop of rumors that the documents would reveal the complicity of the president's Cabinet in his assassination. The opening of the papers with great fanfare in 1947 dispelled the notion that they contained scandalous secrets.
The total number of items in the division's presidential collections exceeds two million. Collection size varies from a handful of documents, 631, in the Zachary Taylor Papers to the voluminous William Howard Taft Papers, 675,000 items. For those pre-presidential-library collections that the Manuscript Division does not have--the papers of John and John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Warren G. Harding--the division has obtained microfilm copies, with the result that scholars can consult in our reading room in one format or another a virtually unbroken line of papers from the administration of George Washington to that of Calvin Coolidge.
The presidential papers contain items that are among the most important individual manuscript treasures in the nation. In the Washington Papers are the father of the country's diaries, his commission as commander in chief of the American army, and his annotated copy of the United States Constitution. Jefferson's papers contain his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence with marginalia by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Madison's papers include the incomparable notes on the Constitutional Convention, the principal source for understanding the composition and meaning of the Constitution. In Lincoln's papers are the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, two drafts of the Gettysburg Address, and holograph copies of his first and second inaugural addresses. The Wilson Papers contain the original draft of the Fourteen Points.
So important to the nation are the division's presidential papers that Congress passed and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed on 25 April 1958 an act to microfilm them and sell positive copies at cost to libraries around the nation. The Library's presidential papers can be consulted at dispersed, multiple sites, and in the event of a catastrophe, our national manuscript record shall not, in the words of one of its greatest creators, perish from this earth.